Challenging Iran's Leaders at Their Own Game
by JAMSHEED K. CHOKSY
31 Mar 2010 17:25
[ opinion ] Though the threat of more economic sanctions have eased for now and the threat of military strikes has faded since the passing of the Bush administration and its belligerent rhetoric, Washington's power brokers appear to have given up on engaging Iran diplomatically, taking a tried-that/didn't-work approach. Offers of dialogue are unconvincing. The Obama administration seems to have dug in its heels, demanding that Tehran cave, rather than seeking a mutually agreeable solution.
In the meantime, Iran appears to progress steadily toward nuclear weapons breakout capability. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates Iran possesses sufficient low-enriched uranium (LEU), over two metric tons, for purification into a single weapons-grade warhead of 20-25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.
Iranian leaders have begun comparing their program to Japan's, which is capable of producing nuclear weapons rapidly. Japan stopped once it attained breakout capability; as it feels threatened by the outside world, Iran may not. So the nuclear impasse continues, with both sides trading barbs and prospects for improvement in bilateral relations further corroding.
Consequently, the United States increasingly looks to containment and mitigation as the means for dealing with Iran, replacing attempts at communication and prevention. American officials from President Obama down have proposed missile shields for the Middle East and Europe. For the United States, it seems, Iran has superseded the Soviet Union as the new evil empire. The politicians in Tehran and Qom have not failed to recognize this elevation in international status brought on by their actions.
Granted, the Obama administration's hopes of swift dialogue with Tehran have been dashed by mullahs who fear regime change. Yet the tacit dismissal of sustained diplomacy on the grounds that Iran's government is not open to it, cannot make decisions, or is not trustworthy has proved counterproductive. Few viable options are left for the United States.
In the immediate aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election and during the subsequent internal challenges to the legitimacy of the theocratic system, Iran's government did appear incapable of reaching agreement with the West on nuclear issues. However, Tehran's autocrats have quashed many forms of public dissent and are in control again -- at least for now.
Opportunities to resolve the standoff through negotiations do exist. In part due to Russian and Chinese diplomatic efforts, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's MIT-trained former representative to the IAEA and current chief of nuclear programs, declared in mid-March that his country was "ready to deliver the total amount of fuel in one go, on condition that the exchange take place inside Iran and simultaneously. We are ready to deliver 1,200 kilograms and to receive 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium." Salehi's remarks are particularly notable given Iran's previous reluctance to exchange so much of its LEU stockpile in a single transaction, as initially proposed by the IAEA and endorsed by the P5+1 last October.
Even with this declaration, the sticking points of timing and location remain. Iran, worried that the West will not send enriched uranium once the LEU has left its borders, wants a simultaneous exchange. The United States has opposed any exchange within Iran, fearing the regime may hold on to the LEU after receiving the 20 percent enriched fuel rods and plate. Iran's qualms are unrealistic as the United States and its allies know the world is watching and the U.N. is exercising oversight. A breach of contract on the other side would provide ample cause for the United States to take unilateral punitive measures and cost Iran the stature it is gaining in the Third World. Indeed, none of the parties involved wishes to be viewed as pirates.
It is not unexpected that an American administration distracted by other matters at home and abroad would fail to respond to Iran's latest attempt to reach a deal. Yet this failure also underscores the narrow understanding of the diplomatic process that continues to characterize the U.S. government. Yes, Iran's offer does not completely meet American demands. But diplomacy is a progressive process, not an all-or-nothing strategy. For engagement to be successful, it has to be more than a series of nonstarters based on inflexible positions. It's neither about accepting or rejecting a particular proposal nor waiting out the other side, but about keeping all eyes on the prize even as time runs out. And, in this case, there are two potential rewards.
The focus here should not be on victories over terms and conditions. The crucial objectives are to build trust between the two nations and to ensure that Iran does not assemble nuclear weapons. Realization of the first objective can go far in making the second one possible. The United States and its allies in the P5+1 have little to lose by responding to Iran's latest offer, telling Tehran to set a firm date for nuclear fuel exchange via the IAEA. Such a gesture would demonstrate to Russia and China, whose support is needed against Iran in the U.N. Security Council, that America is heeding their concerns and appreciates their assistance. In other words, the United States would be generating shared stakes for those two nations in the success of the process, as well.
Iran has been claiming in recent months that it wants to reach a deal with the West, that it seeks nuclear cooperation rather than confrontation. Here is yet another opportunity for the Obama administration to use diplomacy to America's advantage -- either Iran follows through on its offer or is shown to be talking just to stall. If a successful fuel exchange transpires, it could prove to be a major step forward in bilateral relations. If it fails because of intransigence in Tehran, the rest of the world will be less sympathetic toward and trusting of Iran's leaders. And the United States will be seen as having sought, yet again, a peaceful resolution. Either outcome would benefit U.S. interests, while demonstrating a greater understanding of the gains achievable through diplomatic engagement.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian and International studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.
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